BBC zombie caper slammed by security pros
Daft Beeb-bot doco gets go-ahead
Analysis A controversial BBC Click documentary which involved researchers obtaining access to a botnet and sending spam is due to screen this weekend despite a growing storm of criticism.
Security experts - including McAfee, a firm whose representatives appear in the programme - have described the exercise as misguided and unnecessary. Legal experts contacted by El Reg reckon the show potentially breaches the unauthorised modifications provisions of the Computer Misuse Act, the UK's computer hacking law.
The BBC's only response to the growing row to date has been a post from @BBCClick on Twitter stating: "We would not put out a show like this one without having taken legal advice."
BBC Click obtained access to a botnet of 22,000 compromised Windows PCs from an underground forum. It used these machines to send junk mail to two accounts it had established with Gmail and Hotmail. The programme also used these compromised PCs to show how they might be used in a denial of service attack. After obtaining permission from security firm PrevX, it launched an assault that rendered a backup test site established by the firm unreachable.
Researchers warned the owners of the malware-infected PCs that their machines had the pox by changing their wallpaper to display a message from BBC Click explaining how to clean up their machines.
BBC Click twitters that the show was "six months in the making", adding "We're very happy with it and reckon it's a good watch".
Security experts are less impressed. Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, wrote a blog posting arguing that even though BBC Click had honourable intentions in raising awareness about botnets it didn't excuse potential breaches of the Computer Misuse Act and potentially computer crime laws in other countries.
"Maybe it isn't just UK computer crime laws that have been broken. What if one of the compromised computers was at the Department of Defense or NASA? Does Spencer Kelly [BBC Click reporter] want to be the next Gary McKinnon?"
Cluley put the question of whether or not the BBC's approach was justified up for debate among other security firms on Twitter. Kaspersky, AVG, McAfee, FaceTime and F-Secure all agreed that the BBC had behaved badly.
PrevX, which participated in the programme, has posted a combative response defending the BBC's tactics in a posting to the Escapist video game forum here.
Aside from PrevX, the general consensus seems to be that the whole exercise was about as dumb as a brain-dead zombie.
Both Sophos and McAfee reckon the behaviour of compromised machines could have been faked without resorting to using networks of compromised PCs. McAfee's reaction is particularly telling because Greg Day, a security researcher at McAfee, is interviewed in the programme. It turns out McAfee had little inkling of BBC Click's plans. Queried by El Reg on whether it reckoned BBC Click's tactics were ethical, McAfee gave a clear 'no':
McAfee conducted an interview about botnets with BBC Click in spring of 2008 but was not involved in the botnet experiment conducted for this programme. McAfee's conversation with BBC Click was a general discussion about botnets and a demonstration of what they are capable of, done within a contained environment at McAfee Avert Labs in Aylesbury. Although educating people about the dangers associated with the internet is a subject close to McAfee's heart, the company does not endorse the approach taken by the BBC to raise awareness of the issue of botnets.
Joris Evers, former security reporter turned McAfee spokesman, added: "There is no need for the BBC to commandeer PCs of unknowing Net users, send spam and launch an attack to prove the botnet issue."
Struan Robertson, editor of out-law.com and legal director at solicitors Pinsent Masons, reckons that BBC Click's exercise broke the Computer Misuse Act provisions against unauthorised access, but would probably escape unauthorised modification charge.
The BBC - which, lest we forget is heavily promoting the show - is yet to detail why its lawyers think its action were above board. Discussions around the issue have suggested some sort of public interest defence, a notion scotched by Robertson. "There's no public interest defence to CMA offences," he told us.
Spencer Kelly affably referred our queries on the legality of its exercise to a BBC press officer, who is yet to get back to us. Our electronic messages of the legality of the show - alongside queries on whether the BBC paid crooks to rent access to compromised machines, the normal approach a would-be spammer would take - have also gone begging.
The thought of licence-payers' money going into the back pockets of cybercrooks is an uncomfortable one.
It's quite possible that the BBC got advice on how to take over a low-value botnet without paying a penny of course, but until either the BBC or PrevX step forward to clarify the issue we can't be sure. The PrevX researcher who participated in the programme, Jacques Erasmus, is on holiday in Namibia and couldn't be reached for comment.
The BBC Click programme is due to be broadcast at 06:45 on BBC1 on Saturday, 14 March and the BBC News Channel on both Saturday or Sunday at 11:30. It will also be available through iPlayer.
More discussion on the question of the legality of the exercise can be found on a blog maintained by John Graham, one of the first to pick up on promos for the controversial programme. ®